Two weeks after a D.C. Court of Appeals ruling was hailed as a win by domestic violence victims' advocates, there are rumblings that several D.C. Superior Court judges may disagree with their interpretation of a key part of the decision.
The city attorney general's office warned in a new motion filed yesterday with the appellate court that the Superior Court judges' position could reduce enforcement of civil protection orders in domestic violence or other intrafamily cases.
In the May 19 ruling (PDF), the appellate judges wrote that private individuals could bring criminal contempt actions for violations of civil protection orders, as long as they did it “in the name of the United States."
Attorneys for the victim in the underlying case, Wykenna Watson, have argued private enforcement is a necessary tool for victims. At the time, they said they believed the appellate court affirmed that right.
But the new motion filed yesterday by the city attorney general’s office indicates several unnamed Superior Court judges have read that part of the ruling to mean that private individuals can only bring an enforcement action if a government lawyer is involved.
According to the filing, several judges expressed this opinion “in informal discussions” with the attorney general’s office. The attorney general's office is asking the court for clarification.
“This erroneous understanding of the Court’s decision would reduce the enforcement of [civil protection orders],” the attorney general’s office wrote. The motion did not say whether any judges had actually rejected any petitions filed by private individuals to date.
Ariel Waldman, senior counsel to the attorney general, declined to comment on the case this morning. A spokeswoman for the D.C. Superior Court was not immediately available for comment.
Wykenna Watson’s attorney, Covington & Burling partner Robert Long, did not immediately return a request for comment. A representative from the U.S. attorney’s office, which has been involved in the case, and the Public Defender Service, which represented Watson’s ex-boyfriend, John Robertson, also did not immediately return requests for comment.
The Public Defender Service also filed a motion yesterday in the case asking the appeals court for more time to file a petition for a rehearing. The motion did not offer any details as to the reason.
Joan Meier, executive director of the Washington-based Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project, said she was “stunned” to learn about the dispute.
“The entire litigation in the Robertson case was premised on the agreement of all the parties that the private parties can prosecute criminal contempt,” said Meier, also a law professor at George Washington University Law School. “I don’t know how the Superior Court can say private victims can’t bring these cases.”